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Detailed preparation of decisions is in the best interests of science

29 May 2017

The final decisions on the applications selected for funding are made in the third and last stage of the application process. Once the panels have completed their review reports on all applications, the Academy’s research councils, the Strategic Research Council, the Finnish Research Infrastructure Committee and the Academy’s subcommittees will begin preparations for their own decisions together with the science advisers at the Academy’s research units.

For purposes of their decision-making, the research councils have access not only to the application documents and the panels’ review reports, but also statistical material compiled by research units on the overall distributions of panel ratings. The panels make their ratings on a scale from 1 to 6, and most applications selected for funding usually receive a rating of 5 or 6.

“The research council has an extremely important role to perform: to pick out the very best of the best. Many of our applicants score very high ratings, but even the highest ratings do not guarantee that they will be funded, for the simple reason that there’s not enough money to go around,” says Anneli Anttonen, Chair of the Research Council for Culture and Society.

Not all panels work in the same way, so it is important for those who make the funding decisions to understand how each panel uses its rating scale. Statistical data and memos on panel meetings help research council members to appreciate the differences between disciplines and so to compare different panels with one another.

“In our research council, we have to weigh and consider every application against the bigger picture. We know from the statistics that there are panels that hardly ever give the highest rating of 6. A rating of 5 in that panel therefore indicates a really excellent application. No applicant should be put at a disadvantage because their application has been reviewed by a rigorous panel,” Anttonen continues.

National significance assessed by research councils

Every application is also read by research council members to ensure that the applications receive equal treatment. Funding decisions are not based only on the general ratings given by the international panel of experts.

“This contributes to a more careful and detailed process in that we re-read the applications and weigh them in relation to the panel’s assessments,” Anttonen explains.

This may raise questions about extending an already lengthy application process, if the research councils are effectively repeating the same reviews done by the panels. Anttonen admits this is a difficult question to resolve, but she is adamant that the research council model has important advantages.

“The panel experts come from other countries and therefore from outside our own science community. Sometimes it may be hard for them to appreciate the significance of a certain line of research to Finnish history, to national poetry or the national self-understanding. That’s why I think it’s useful that the elected officials in the research councils also read the applications.”

Furthermore, the members of the research councils are best placed to assess the scientific novelty value of research because they know what work has been done earlier. Anttonen says it is also necessary to support small but important lines of research inquiry.

“It’s also important to support the evolution of new areas of research, and to this end the research council’s science policy assessments are necessary. It can be hard for applicants who have received the best possible ratings to understand why they aren’t funded, but some projects have greater novelty value than others,” Anttonen explains.

Quality and impact decisive

The chairs and members of the Academy’s research councils are appointed by the Finnish Government for a three-year term. In their capacity as elected officials and decision-makers, the members of the research councils represent the scientific community. Before appointing a research council, the Ministry of Education, Science and Culture will consult universities, government research institutes, public R&D officials and communities, major scientific societies and science academies. Every effort is made to ensure that the council chair and members represent a diverse and high level of scientific expertise.

The research councils do not allocate funding to certain universities, but their funding decisions are based on international peer reviews. “We spend a lot of time examining the applications to sift out the very best of the best. That’s in the best interests of science and the science community. You’re always going to get some criticism, but that’s understandable when you have competition for funding,” Anttonen adds.

“Trust and confidence is essential in this job, and the research council is driven by a strong sense of justice. We’re interested in the content of the research plans presented in the applications, not in the names of the applicants. The quality of the research plans, their novelty value and impact are the decisive factors.”

According to Anttonen, outsiders always seem to think that the names of the applicants carry greater weight than they actually do. “We read hundreds of applications, so the eureka moments are the true spice of this job. I really enjoy reading applications that amaze and inspire me.”

Read the other articles in this series: Senior Science Advisers Aki Salo and Hannele Kurki explain what happens in the first stage of the application process and Senior Science Adviser Juha Latikka from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Unit describes the second stage.

Last modified 29 May 2017
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